I was recently at a workshop where I was one of two women (out of ten). I’ve generally had a really great experience in working groups, but this once quickly morphed into a Bingo card of sexist microaggressions. With the plethora of recent articles on how there is no sexism problem in science, and how talking about microaggressions is the greatest threat to our universities (and not, say, funding or the adjunct crisis), I think it’s worth sharing this experience.
This workshop had it all. My female colleague and I were routinely interrupted, talked over, and ignored. One senior male participant stood up and gave a spontaneous presentation on something that “he’s never seen anyone mention before,” despite the fact that I had just shown the exact slide and mentioned the very point he did, not ten minutes before. Participants in very different fields mansplained our research to both of us, or in some cases dismissed our entire fields outright. They responded with hostility or patronizing tones to our questions or contrary points, but accepted the same criticisms with good nature from their male colleagues. The men asked one another questions that the women were better-suited to answer based on what we do, but we were talked over. During meals and coffee breaks, the men clustered together in groups and didn’t socialize with us.
Halfway through the second day, I was so upset that I hid in the meeting room during a break, while everyone else clustered outside in the sunshine. My fellow female participant found me there, and confided in me that she was feeling really disconnected from the workshop. I agreed, and we tentatively started to explore our mutual feelings that what we were experiencing was a series of microaggressions: unintentional sexism on the part of our colleagues, that was none-the-less creating a hostile environment. We were both nervous to bring it up out of fear that the other would think we were overreacting. We were both so relieved to hear that we weren’t just imagining it: it was real, and it sucked.
For the rest of the meeting, our camaraderie was like an invisible shield. By this point, the senior male scholar who stole my idea was actively avoiding me, refusing to make eye contact or even talk to me (I’m still not sure what happened there). But we would often point to one another, saying, “I think she has a point to make,” or “as she brought up earlier,” backing one another up and trying to create space in the stifling atmosphere. It helped, a little.
One thing I found striking about this meeting is that my female colleague and I had very different personalities: she’s quite and tentative, I’m loud and assertive. Neither one did either of us any good. She’d get talked over and ignored, and I’d get interrupted and shut down. In academia, is it better to be forgotten, or disliked? This is the risk to leaning in — to elbowing your way to a seat at the table. You make enemies. I was very, very careful to match my male colleagues in tone and level of aggressiveness in conversation, and I noted a disproportionate level of negativity in reaction to things I’d say, compared with my male colleagues at the table. The differences were not in what was said, but in how I was perceived.
Ultimately, though, I got very little out of that meeting, but I did see expressly how harmful microaggressions can be. Nothing anybody did would qualify as something to report under Title IX, but the damage was done nonetheless. This trip was probably a net negative for me, overall: lost work time and little gain in the form of connections or future directions. I am nervous about following up on leading papers with some of these men as co-authors. I am even more nervous by the fact that I may have walked away from this workshop with enemies: high-profile scientists who may review papers or proposals and remember me as “shrill,” “bitchy,” or any of the other words we apply to women who stand up for themselves.
This could have been prevented. I’ve written before about how to be a supportive male colleague. The organizers could have started with a better gender balance among conference participants ( and I will think twice before participating in an unbalanced group again), and could have been better moderators of the discussion overall. The other men could have been better allies, pointing out when ideas were being repeated, not talking over women, or bringing us into discussions we were actively being excluded from.
There’s an emotional toll to being constantly undermined, ignored, dismissed, and downplayed. Throughout the meeting, my mind kept straying to the empty seats, and the women who weren’t there. I kept thinking about how even in our small actions, we create spaces that are welcoming, or not, to people who don’t look like us. What happened to all the women who got crowded out? The women who were tired of being ignored, dismissed, snapped at, or stolen from? The men in the room took up a lot of space, but they couldn’t possibly fill the gaping hole created by all those missing women.